The Post-Pandemic Workplace

Working at your desk in your living room has its advantages, as does not having to use a stall bathroom. But beyond the extra sleep employees may be indulging in, and added privacy, is working at home all they always thought it would be?

A new survey by Robert Half sheds light on how employees feel about work life in their living room as opposed to their cubicle or open-plan office.

Of employees surveyed, 77 percent said they are currently working from home. These workers were asked, “Which of the following positive sentiments have you felt with respect to your job in the last several weeks?” The top responses included (multiple responses were permitted):

I realize my job is doable from home: 63%

My work-life balance has improved due to lack of a commute: 60%

I’m more comfortable using technology: 43%

I’ve grown closer to colleagues: 20%

I’ve grown closer to my boss: 19%

When offices reopen, many organizations will need to decide whether they want—or can—bring back all employees into the office. In the short term, there will be social distancing requirements that make open-plan offices at least temporarily out of the question. Long term, company and employee expectations for hygienic working conditions may have changed. Some employees may never want to return to a work environment with no barriers between themselves and surrounding employees, and some may never again feel totally at ease in a crowded conference room with no windows and poor ventilation.

A survey distributed now—while most, or all, of your employees are still working at home— would be helpful. You can ask how they are faring working at home, including how your company’s IT systems function when accessed from afar, how easy (or hard) it is for employees to concentrate on their work at home, how they would rate their productivity level at home compared to at the office, and how they feel emotionally when working long term at home.

In addition to the survey for all employees, you could send a survey just to managers to learn how their employees’ work performance has changed, remained the same, or improved since being “locked-down” at home. Employees may rate their productivity as high, but managers may notice they are behind on key projects, and that formerly high-performing employees are slipping in the quality of their output.

If you find employees have minor issues such as ergonomic discomfort, you could consider providing a stipend for employees to buy better desks and chairs. If their primary discomfort is the distraction of children by their side who need to be home-schooled, remember that that’s a temporary challenge. When the pandemic crisis is over, those children will be tucked away for the day at school. As you go through employee complaints about their home work environment, be careful to weed out temporary issues such as the challenge of working alongside children with more permanent issues such as despair and depression working in an isolated environment and being taken away from a reassuring daily routine of getting up, putting on work clothes, commuting to the office, interacting with colleagues, getting work done, and then coming home with the work left tidily behind at the office, not to be dealt with again until the following day.

A key challenge of working from home is the lack of psychological closure at the end of the day. When working outside the home, you turn off your computer, put it away, and physically change locations—creating a concrete division between work and home. When you both live and work in the same place, that division isn’t as easy to enforce.

Some employees will be more attuned to work from home than others. Rather than create a blanket solution for post-pandemic work life in which all employees return to the office or all stay home, look at it from an individual-to-individual perspective. You may find that many employees like a combination of work from home and work from the office. In those cases, you could stagger in-office time, so employees can take turns using the office space. If some employees have no interest in returning to the office at all, consider letting them stay home. Your utility costs and office space requirements will decrease, and you will have given those employees another reason to stay with you.

The COVID-19 crisis has taken away freedoms, such as the ability to do things we once took for granted like throwing a party, getting a haircut, or sitting at a bar. If you can help employees reclaim a piece of their lost freedom by enabling them to work in the way that’s best for each of them, you will be doing your part to help our society recover.

What are you hearing from your employees on their feelings about working from home? What changes to how your employees work will you be making after this crisis passes?